Q: Can’t scientific progress be equated with the happiness of the human race? What is the Buddhist view of science?
A: Today when science affords so many blessings in every aspect of life, many people undoubtedly share your view. Buddhism does not deny the value of science, but sees it as only a tool, one means of achieving happiness. Depending on how we use the tool of science, it can act as either a devil or a buddha: this is the teaching of Buddhism. Until the nineteenth century, science brought happiness to humanity, but with the invention of dynamite, it began to be used to develop weapons of increasing cruelty.
The two World Wars brought a sudden spurt in the pace of mass destruction, culminating in the creation of a monster: the atomic bomb. It all began in 1938, when German physicists discovered that uranium can undergo nuclear fission. Other scientists feared that Nazi Germany would use that principle to develop nuclear weapons. Albert Einstein conveyed his concern to the president of the United States, and work on developing an atomic bomb began at an accelerated pace. And then, as the end of the war drew near, bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Barely four years after the end of the war, the U.S.S.R. also gained possession of the bomb, and the two superpowers squared off in a nuclear arms race.
Each of them developed the hydrogen bomb, with a destructive capacity hundreds of times greater than that of the atomic bomb. At one time as many as seventy thousand nuclear bombs existed on the planet. Even today, as world powers continue to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear bombs, enough of these weapons remain to wipe out the human race several times over. Besides the threat of atomic warfare, humanity trembles in fear at the thought of these weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Rather than weapons, they deserve to be called instruments for the destruction of humanity, or indeed of the planet.
In World War Two, nearly fifty million young men around the world died like flies. If there is a World War Three, the globe will be engulfed in flames in a matter of hours. So is science a devil or a buddha? Certainly it is no devil, yet devils do live in the minds of those who avail themselves of science. They are the devils of greed, anger, and envy, which Śākyamuni Buddha called the blue devil, the red devil, and the black devil. These three do not allow human dignity, freedom, or joy in life. Learning, culture, ethics, and morals can all go to hell.
In the Japanese fairy-tale “Peach Boy,” Momotaro reforms the devils on Devils Island, but only true Buddhism can reform the devils in the human mind. Only when it is used as a means of spreading true Buddhism, which leads people everywhere and in all ages to true happiness, can science have a real raison d’être and fulfill its mission.
True Buddhists must put science to work for that purpose.